My hospital roommate, the victim of an automobile accident, received a visit from his pastor. It was a disaster. The pastor acted like a bashful schoolboy. The conversation was tense and painfully long, and closure was a gigantic problem. Finally, when the patient's family entered the room, the pastor mumbled a few words and left. Sighs of relief followed his departure.
Perhaps you have been in the shoes of that fumbling pastor. I have. But I discovered a few principles of visitation that changed the whole course of my ministry to the sick, the lonely, and the despairing. I'll share them with you.
The first two minutes of a visit spell your success or failure. If you express interest in the patient as soon as you enter, the patient will know that you are interested in being there. If you talk about the weather or the lovely flowers the minute you enter the room, the patient will know that you are threatened by the expression of feelings.
Keep the conversation on the feeling level. There is risk involved in talking about the patient's feelings, but at the feeling level is where the hurt and the healing are located. This requires concentrated listening love. This is simply listening at deeper levels in an effort to comprehend the deeper levels of hurt and healing.
After the sharing of feelings, you might ask how the patient is managing, or plans to manage, the crisis. Here is where you observe the effectiveness of the patient's spiritual tools. At this point you might wish appropriately to share added resources of spiritual strength out of your own experience—as long as it is brief, genuine, and not preachy.
It is very easy to cheer up the patient superficially, but this does more harm than good. Talking about the depths of sorrow demands that the pastor enter the sorrow of the patient to a degree, but for the patient there must be pain before healing can occur. Tears are a God-given way of releasing pressure. Don't be afraid of the tears in the patient's eyes or in your own.
Always point the patient to things of gratitude and hope. Recount the blessings of God together, but not so early in the visit that the expression of feeling is stifled. Let prayer and Bible reading be the choice of the patient. Otherwise the patient may see this pastoral activity as just another form of losing control over life. Be sure that your prayer is an outgrowth of the visit. Let the patient suggest his or her favorite scriptural passage.
Remember that sickness is accompanied by multiple losses. The accompanying grief includes reactions of shock, anger, guilt, denial, hopelessness, and depression. Listen to the expression of these emotions nonjudgmentally.
Watch the body language. You'll be able to read the anxiety level in things such as tapping fingers, wringing hands, and incessant talk. The patient maybe afraid of dying. If so, permit the patient to talk about death. It may be the most meaningful spiritual exercise the patient has had in many months.
Be aware of the three kinds of ministry. The ministry of presence is the most beautiful ministry of all. Your presence says a lot about your love. The second kind of ministry is the ministry of word and touch. This is an intense and emotionally demanding ministry. It can happen only when the pastor is in touch with Jesus. The pastor must fill his or her own spiritual well before giving a cup of cold water to the sick.
The third kind of ministry is the ministry of absence. Don't stay too long. If you leave after the appropriate length of time, the Holy Spirit will use what you have left behind of yourself your words, smiles, prayers, and tears and thus sustain a ministry more efficaciously than you could do by your prolonged presence.
The last general principle of visitation may seem remote, but I believe it is relevant to the topic. I call it preventive ministry. In every church worship service there are broken people who need comfort and the assurance that God loves, forgives, and saves. They need to know that in Jesus there is recovery. Shouting and scolding should have no place in our worship services. Careful thought should be given to making them healing in nature. This would make our work in the sickroom much easier.
Visiting the lonely
I once read that in love's service only wounded soldiers will do. If that be the case, I suggest that pastors are good soldiers in their ministry to the lonely. Ministry has a unique loneliness. If you can learn to address that loneliness, and learn to make right decisions in relation to it, then the uniqueness of that loneliness can bring depth of meaning to your life. You can come forth as gold tried in the fire and be a priceless source of support and comfort to lonely people.
Loneliness is a condition from which no human being is immune. It results from a lack of meaningful relationships whereby the human hungers are satisfied. When the hungers for human contacts, acceptance, responsiveness from others, support, love, and the touch of tenderness are not met, there is a slow decay of the person. On the other hand, when these hungers are reasonably satisfied by relationships, the human being literally comes alive. Let me share a few ideas that will equip you in ministry to the lonely.
First, help the lonely person to admit loneliness and to express freely the pain of loneliness. Until a lonely person does this, he or she will not be ready to work on solutions. Neither will the pastor know exactly what the situation is. Once it is expressed, then the pastor can help to identify causes of the loneliness that can be changed, corrected, or removed. Courses of action can be decided on.
There are some causes of loneliness, like the death of a spouse, that cannot be changed. In this event, the goal of the pastor would be to help the person to take some steps in coping with the loneliness.
A favorite exercise of mine is to show that loneliness is a part of every person's life—a part that need not crush us. I get the person to talk about lonely times gone by. This gives perspective. We talk together about lessons learned through past loneliness. The person is encouraged to take stock of new strengths developed in crises of the past.
Another successful technique is to show the lonely person that a broken relation ship is the loss of a love receiver. The capacity to love and contribute to the well-being of others is still there. We explore ways of developing friendships with new love receivers. I offer my friendship and respond to the person's offer of caring.
Working with lonely people takes time and frequent visitation. Frequent exploration of values is vital. Careful attention to the development of the total person is essential. Help the lonely people to feed their inner lives and thus prevent emptiness of spirit. Out of your own experience share how a friendship with Jesus meets the deep, hidden hungers of the soul.
if we would be free of tragic loneliness, we must experience these six things: work, play, love, worship, beauty, and a sense of humor.
Visiting the emotionally ill
The late Dr. Ernie Bruder taught us that many who suffer from emotional illness received the deepest injuries in the family, and apart from the family they can't be healed. Obviously, a return to some families by an emotionally ill person would be a grave mistake. For them there must be a new family—a healing community. The church must be that healing community that new family.
An emotionally ill person wrote, "We need above all else the influence of a 'healing community'—an atmosphere where we can be accepted for what we are, and just as we are, and thus be freed to become more than we are. Thus we may be able to achieve something of that high dignity for which we believe we were created as sons and daughters of God."
The pastor's visit must convey to the emotionally ill person that the pastor loves, respects, and highly values the ill person. This opens the bars of self-hatred so that the reality of God's love can be comprehended. The family of God must be meaningfully present before God can be perceived in a healing way.
Here are some practical tips that will facilitate this perception on the part of these beautiful persons:
1. Relax when you visit. Lean back in your chair and look "at home."
2. Let the person know that his or her illness doesn't change your respect and love.
3. Don't be in a hurry to leave. Give assurances that you will be happy to visit again. Return, by all means.
4. Be friendly to other patients. Speak comfortably to patients that your parishioner introduces you to.
5. Walk around the ward or the grounds with the person you are visiting. This helps the person to know that you are comfort able.
6. Compliment the patient. Share how much you appreciate the friendship between the two of you.
7. Tell the person in a simple way that, come what may, he or she can never be separated from God's compassion and concern.
8. Use the three parables of Luke 15 to assure the patient that he or she is of great value in God's sight.
Visiting the emotionally ill is hard work. It requires carefulness, patience, compassionate listening, openness, friendliness, warmth, acceptance, and hopefulness. It requires that the pastor become involved, that he take the risk of experiencing the loneliness and despair of the patient.
Henri Nouwen in his book The Wounded Healer talks about the "great illusion" of thinking that you can lead a person out of the desert when you have not been there yourself. His point is well taken. The pastor must walk through the valley of pain and sorrow with the afflicted, but by the power of the Gentle Spirit he will also accompany them to the feet of the Master Healer.